Tuesday, August 21, 2012

`I Think Nothing Equals Macbeth'

I’m interested in a phrase William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, uses to describe some of the books read by the future president. The volumes, he reports in Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (1889), were “assimilated…into his own being.” Specifically, Herndon refers to the period around 1834 in New Salem, Ill., before Lincoln became a lawyer, when “Volney’s Ruins and Paine’s Age of Reason passed from hand to hand, and furnished food for the evening's discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being.” 

In 2007, Robert Bray published “What Abraham Lincoln Read—An Evaluative and Annotated List” in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Bray, who teaches American literature at Illinois Wesleyan University, weighs the evidence and judges whether Lincoln actually read each volume attributed to him. He says with certainty Lincoln read, among others, Bunyan, Burns, Byron, Cowper, Defoe, Euclid, Gibbon, Gray, Poe, Pope and much Shakespeare (nine Englishmen, one American and a Greek). In 2010, Bray published Reading with Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press), in which he says: 

“From boyhood on, Lincoln’s habit of reading concentrated a naturally powerful mind; and reading provided models of voice and diction to one who had inborn talent as a storyteller and a near-flawless memory and therefore needed only the stimulus of literary greatness, and emulative practice, to emerge as a great writer himself.” 

Bray emphasizes that Lincoln as an adult always read “deeply rather than broadly.” In his own words, he went to school “by littles,” and his reading was full of holes, but he read deliberately, and what he read he remembered. In short, he read like a writer – learning, testing, gleaning, absorbing, assimilating. Serious writers, when they read, are always weighing and assessing: “This works. This I can use. Forget that.” Lincoln ranks among our greatest writers of prose (see Jacques Barzun’s “Lincoln the Literary Artist” and Marianne Moore’s “Abraham Lincoln and the Art of the Word”). 

Most of us have read more books than Lincoln. He grew up early in the nineteenth century on the margins of the American wilderness, where literacy was uncommon and books were rare and precious. Imagine if, through some mnemonic miracle, we could recall the title of every book we ever read. Of those thousands of volumes, how many could we honestly say we have assimilated? That is, how many have become second nature, a part of our consciousness and even our conscience? A precious few, and they readily come to mind – Shakespeare, the Bible, Dante, Melville, Johnson, Dickinson, Milton, Montaigne, a few others. They do our thinking for us and we innocently take the credit. Bray quotes a letter Lincoln wrote in 1863 to the American Shakespearean actor James H. Hackett: 

“Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing `O, my offence is rank’ surpasses that commencing `To be, or not to be.’ But pardon this small attempt at criticism.” 

The soliloquy the president cites is from Act III, Scene 3, and is spoken not by Hamlet but Claudius, after Polonius’ exit. Hamlet has just said to the king: 

“Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property
On wholesome life usurp immediately.” 

And Claudius replies: 

“O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murther! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lincoln was a man on whom nothing was lost. I have read many books over many years about Lincoln; the more I learn about him, the greater his stature. Anyone who understands Lincoln, understands America.